Donate

New York May Stop Locking Up Thousands Of People A Year For Possessing Pocketknives

The New York state Senate has unanimously passed a bill that would end the criminalization of folding knives commonly used by tradespeople, so-called "gravity knives," the loose definition of which has enabled New York City police and prosecutors to jail tens of thousands of mostly black and Latino people over the last decade. Having passed the Assembly, the law will now go to Governor Andrew Cuomo's desk for approval.

"This outdated law long ago lost its edge, and this legislation would sharpen our regulations, to ensure that people are not being senselessly arrested," Senator Diane Savino, who sponsored the Senate bill, said in a statement. "When it comes to the use of common folding knives, our working men and women are being senselessly targeted, for nothing more than doing their jobs."

The Village Voice, which has done groundbreaking reporting on the abuse of the gravity knife law by police and prosecutors, sums up the problem this way:

[T]he short explanation is that an outdated, poorly worded statute, passed in 1958 and designed to outlaw large, switchblade-like knives, has increasingly been used to arrest people for common folding knives. Under a quirk of language, any knife that can be opened with a wrist flick can land its owner in jail. And NYPD officers have learned that nearly any folding blade on the market can be opened with a practiced snap, even if it was never designed to operate that way.

The law is barely used at all outside the five boroughs.

The just-passed bill amends the definitions of switchblade knives and gravity knives to state that they do "not include a knife that has a spring, detent, or other mechanism designed to create a bias toward closure and that requires exertion applied to the blade by hand, wrist or arm to overcome the bias toward closure and open the knife." In other words, if you aren't a German paratrooper cutting your way out of a tree or involved in a real-life West Side Story scenario, you soon might not have to worry about your knife's opening mechanism landing you in jail. (New York City's ban on knives longer than four inches remains untouched.)

By the Voice's count, as many as 60,000 people were arrested for possession of supposed gravity knives from 2003 to 2013, more than 80 percent of them black or Hispanic. The paper also found that white people caught with the knives, commonly available at hardware stores in New York, were 21 percent less likely than black or Hispanic people to be arrested for the offense.

Accounts of people being arrested for the knives they use at work are plentiful. For instance, the city paid Brooklyn electrician Bernard Perez a $57,500 settlement for false arrest, after the cop who arrested him for his utility knife couldn't demonstrate how he'd flicked it open. Another electrician, Walt Seager, missed more than a month of work for the Department of Education while his case was pending. The city paid him a $10,000 settlement.

Others weren't so lucky. Richard Neal, a 50-something sometimes-maintenance worker with a criminal record whom the Voice profiled, spent six years in prison for his knife.

In 2014, a Bronx judge threw out a man's knife-based weapons-possession charge, not because he was innocent of having the knife, but because it was "in the interest of justice."

Despite how common stories like these are—so common a stagehands union devotes part of its newsletter to legal advice on knives—prosecutors, particularly Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, have vigorously opposed changes to the gravity knife statute. In 2010, Vance raided stores selling the knives, including Home Depot, and demanded that they pay the city to avoid prosecution. In response to one of the latest reform efforts, he proposed a licensing system for pocket-knife owners, and reportedly lobbied various lawmakers to kill reform legislation.

"The ban has enhanced public safety, and ending it now amid highly publicized slashing incidents in our city’s streets and subways is not advisable," he wrote in a letter to the New York Times, responding to the paper's editorial in support of gravity-knife reform.

Democratic Upper East Side Assemblyman Dan Quart spearheaded proposals to change the law, and in the process found himself allied with the Second Amendment proponents at Knife Rights, and exposing the hypocrisy of many Republican legislators, who vociferously opposed various restrictions on gun buying, but also opposed measures to decriminalize the ownership of common knives.

In the Assembly, the bill passed 117-12, with most but not all of the opposition coming from Republicans outside the city. Republican Assemblyman Ron Castorina, Jr. from Staten Island's South Shore offered the sole nay vote for a district inside the city limits. Another bill, which sought to make possession of a gravity knife a crime only if cops could show criminal intent, died on the vine in the legislature.

Cy Vance's office declined to comment for this story.

Featured in News